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Harvard, Penn, UCLA... How Do Their Standards of Admission Differ?


For most parents and students, the US College Admissions process has always been shrouded in mystery. As such, many applicants try to explore and break down its elements in order to create a “perfect application plan.”


The admissions process involves more than just curating a top-notch application form. In fact, it is affected by many factors. Aside from the personal preferences of the admissions committee, each university has its distinct review process. It may be efficient to pass the same application materials to meet the requirements of each university, however, it is quite impossible to adjust to their preferences.


How different can review processes at each university be?



Private Universities


Private universities often have an admission committee tasked with reviewing the submissions of each applicant. The delegation of admission readers is based on the region where the student comes from, and they are usually quite knowledgeable of the schools within their jurisdiction.


In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, a university admissions officer revealed that there are more than 30 elite universities adopting and further adapting based on this model, including UPenn, Colorado College, Case Western Reserve University, Moore College, and Caltech.


Relative Importance of Factors in Admission Decisions at University of Pennsylvania


Jeffrey Selingo, a well-known author and expert on US college admissions, once published an article in the Wall Street Journal, detailing the review process of several well-known private university admissions offices.


For example, Emory University scores each applicant according to criteria such as Recommendation, Intellectual Curiosity, etc. Each applicant may earn a maximum of 5 points per criteria. They will then be grouped into different clusters based on their overall score. Finally, they will simplify each cluster.


Relative Importance of Factors in Admission Decisions at Harvard University


As one of the most sought-after universities in the United States, Harvard University is quite "even-handed" in the freshman admissions review process. They conduct a balanced and holistic review of all elements within an application to select the most outstanding talents comprehensively.


This process was quite mysterious. It wasn’t until they were sued by Students For Fair Admissions, a non-profit organization that they were forced to disclose their review process. Harvard revealed that they evaluate students based on the following aspects:

  • Academic Performance

  • Extracurricular Activities

  • Sports

  • Personal Qualities

The application materials that reflect these aspects are then reviewed by 2-3 admissions officers who will score each item on a scale of 1-6 with 1 being the highest.


Their total score will determine whether they will be admitted to the university.


As shown in the table below, from 2014 to 2019,


100% of the students admitted scored “1,”

74% scored “2,” while only 3.97% scored “3.”

the probability of being admitted with a score of “3” is less than 0.1%.


In other words, the difference between applicants with a score of 1 and those who scored less than 3 is 770 times!



Harvard has redacted some of the documents in court, but they made it clear that students who received a "1" on their academic grades typically "submitted certain academic work that was reviewed by faculty."


On the other hand, students who received a "2" typically had "perfect or near-perfect high school grades and standardized test scores, but no evidence of exceptional talent or academic creativity."


Harvard University truncated the description of Extracurricular Activities rated "1," but provided a lot of hints for the "2" rating, such as those with "significant school-level and possibly even district-level achievements." This may include being the "president of the Student Council, captain of the debate team, and leader of several other clubs."


As for the Personal Qualities criteria, it is the most abstract and hardest-to-define aspect of Harvard's admissions evaluation system.


Thus, it was one of the most contentious in the lawsuit.


However, Harvard officials did give a list of qualities they value the most which include "humor, sensitivity, toughness, leadership, integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness."



Public Universities


As for public universities, it is difficult for them to imitate the review process of private universities. Due to the limited budget, the number of admissions officers is disproportionate to the immense number of applicants.


At the same time, they are also subjected to various state legislative restrictions, which means that a student’s admission to a university is often based primarily on their GPA and Standardized Test Scores to follow an approximate formulaic method. This is quite unlike the holistic review process employed by private universities.


However, public universities are also beginning to optimize their admission procedures. For example, the University of California has undergone several changes:

  1. To understand the different aspects of a student’s abilities and personality, they are now requiring 4 short essays instead of the previous 2 long ones

  2. Depending on the type of program, a more careful evaluation of the applicant's GPA and program difficulty is done;

  3. They put more emphasis on extracurricular activities and their impact on students.

The figure below shows the level of priority for each of UCLA's requirements. It can be seen that the most important references are transcripts (including GPA, course difficulty, etc.), standardized test scores, and documents.


As students prepare for their own college applications, they should always make sure that they put their time, effort, and limited resources into understanding the review process of their chosen university, to tailor fit their application to their standards.


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